Butler County leaders target development along the Great Miami River to use ‘great asset’

A century after 1913 Great Flood, activities have increased along the river throughout the region

Communities up and down the Great Miami River are investing in projects along the river to create economic development and connect visitors to their downtowns.

In the last 20 years, more than $100 million has been spent building public spaces along the river from Dayton to Hamilton, said Dan Foley, director of the Great Miami Riverway.

“These places have planted their flags along the river,” he said.

The region’s largest flags will fly in Hamilton and possibly Middletown.

Hamilton will be home to the $144 million Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill, the country’s largest indoor sports complex that should open by April 2022. The mega complex is expected to attract 8,000 to 10,000 athletes and their families every weekend.

Spooky Nook is located at the former Champion Paper mill that’s between North B Street and the Great Miami River. The site also will have a convention center, large ballrooms, meeting rooms and a 233-room hotel.

Spooky Nook founder Sam Beiler, who operates the original Spooky Nook facility near Lancaster, Pa., said he believes views of the river from the convention center and hotel will help stir interest from other groups in booking there.

And last week in Middletown, residents learned about a proposed $1.3 billion project near the river that will include a destination Marriott hotel and attached, publicly owned convention center with roof-top bar, themed restaurant and assorted amenities; a second, family-oriented hotel and water park; a third, historic, boutique hotel located within the adaptively-redeveloped First National Bank building; a major, indoor entertainment and concert venue for large, nationally and internationally acclaimed artists and touring Broadway productions.

Council heard the first reading of legislation that would authorize City Manager Jim Palenick to enter into an agreement with Main Street Community Capital for the development of a riverfront destination entertainment district and theme park.

The project, called Hollywoodland, would be located on nearly 12 acres of city-owned land off Water Street and First Avenue and on 41 acres owned by Forest Hills Country Club.

The Hollywoodland concept is the first for Main Street, which plans to build several similar projects, said David Elias-Rachie, one of the principles.

He likes the idea of building the entertainment destination near the river.

“For years people turned their backs to the river,” Elias-Rachie said. “We want to tie the river to downtown.”

City Council will vote of the legislation at its next meeting on Oct. 21. The project, if approved by city council, is expected to be completed by the end of 2024, the city said.

The city has estimated that about 3.5 million people would annually visit the attractions, about the same that attended Kings Island in 2019

Foley said Hamilton and Middletown, especially if the 4.5 miles of bike path along the river are connected, have the ability to “feed off each other” and bring economic vibrancy to their downtowns.

Foley has made a presentation to local officials encouraging them to support filling the gap in the Great Miami River Trail between the two cities.

He said both Butler County cities are experiencing “significant economic activity” in their downtowns that would be strengthened if the gap is completed.

The river divides Hamilton to the east and west and after “turning their backs to a source of devastation” for decades, the city is taking advantage of the water, said Brandon Saurber, Hamilton’s director of neighborhoods.

“What a great asset we have,” he said.

After the construction of the low-level dam off Neilan Boulevard in the early 1980s, citizens started using the river for recreation, and city leaders see riverfront development as an integral part of Hamilton’s future, Saurber said.

The dam created a recreational pool that eventually led to a rowing club. Some other “key wins,” Saurber said, include RiversEdge Amphitheatre, Fitton Center for Creative Arts, Courtyard by Marriott and Spooky Nook.

Middletown also is seeing development along the river, said Economic Development Director Chris Xeil Lyons.

“Limitless,” she said when asked about the riverfront possibilities.

Xeil Lyons pointed to BAAB’s and the River Center as riverfront development success stories. She said BAAB’s, a restaurant/bar that also rents kayaks, is expanding and offering live music.

Bicentennial Commons is an 11-acre park that overlooks the Great Miami River. The park features the River Center, AK Pavilion, a portion of the Great Miami River Trail, a scenic overlook, and brick paver walkways. The property is managed by Butler MetroParks.

She believes the bike path with “help strength” all cities along the river.

“They will be able to hop off and explore all of Middletown,” she said. “It’s like when you’re in Vegas. You don’t stay in one area. You get out of your hotel and check out other areas.”

Greg Kathman, development services director for the City of Fairfield, said the river is an “amazing entity” that isn’t fully utilized in the city. He said Fairfield uses the river more as a recreational asset than for commercial growth.

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